New Releases and Reissues: January 24
Another week, another jam-packed schedule for new music releases and reissues alike. This week, we look at Supergrass, Wire, Pet Shop Boys and more…
Supergrass – The Strange Ones
With Supergrass happily reforming for a celebratory tour, a reissue campaign was inevitable. Under the same title, you can have both a new Best Of or a boxset. The 2LP 26-song Best Of takes the bold step of having Supergrass’ singles run in reverse chronological order. It means that it’s not until 12 songs in, on the penultimate song on Side Two, that a huge hit arrives via Grace. But that does at least make listeners acknowledge how truly great Supergrass remained, even once the public rather foolishly started taking them for granted: singles such as Diamond Hoo Ha and Brecon Beacons were as great as the smashes we all know and love.
The pleasant surprise is just how comprehensive the boxset edition of The Strange Ones is. Be warned: for vinyl lovers, it’s a conflicting package. In all, the boxset contains Supergrass’ six albums, plus an additional seven CDs of B-sides, demos, live songs and four previously unreleased songs. This means there are comfortably over 100 additional songs.
The additional boxset ephemera is better than usual, too, especially considering the fair £150 price tag. Alongside new band interviews, a book features essays on each album by writers such as Sylvia Patterson and Adam Sweeting. You get eight badges, four posters and a 7″ featuring new mixes of Caught By The Fuzz and Richard III. Really, what is there to moan about? OK, well some people will object to the vinyl being via the dreaded picture disc. LLV has spoken to Supergrass about this for our next issue and their explanation for vinylists will make sense. Put it this way: watch this space. It leaves LLV in the unusual position of thoroughly recommending a boxset where by far the biggest concern is the vinyl itself.
There’s absolutely loads going on across those extras, with the live CDs equating to a live album’s worth of songs from the tours and radio sessions accompanying each record. You could easily get a great additional Supergrass B-sides album worthy of Suede’s Sci-Fi Lullabies or Pet Shop Boys’ Alternative from the 38 B-sides. Of the four unreleased songs, a frenetic cover of The Police’s Next To You is the pick, thanks to an especially chewy Mick Quinn bassline. Look closely, and you’ll see Supergrass strangely ignored remixes as a way of alleviating the pressure of all those B-sides, with only a daft Bentley Rhythm Ace mix of Sun Hits The Sky standing out.
Put on those (relatively good) picture discs and you’ll be reminded how brilliant Supergrass were beyond the hits. They were an unusual proposition of, like Squeeze, being a great singles band who were able to keep the quality up across their albums. Of the six, only Road To Rouen sounds dated, with Life On Other Planets and the whirlwind punky farewell Diamond Hoo Ha especially ripe for reassessing. It appears that the reunion tour will be a no-messing Best Of affair, and who can argue with that? Like the boxset, it seems Supergrass are out to give people what they want all over again.
Much bootlegged after it was broadcast on the BBC, 40 years on from Elton’s historic tour behind the Iron Curtain comes this recording of his show at Moscow’s Rossiya Hall. Remastered from the Beeb’s original analogue tapes and shorn of the usual bombast that accompanied many of his 70s shows, this stripped-back affair presents Elton alone at the piano with only percussionist Ray Cooper on hand for the second half. The piano playing is naturally terrific; Elton shines on both the confessional ballads and harder-rocking tunes. Alongside the more obvious greatest hits, it’s the curveballs here that grab your attention, from the lesser-known Skyline Pigeon to an expansive Creedence-rivalling cover of I Heard It Through The Grapevine and, despite being forbidden from playing it, a cheeky career through Back In The USSR.
After full-on club albums Electric and Super, Pet Shop Boys had implied their third record with producer Stuart Price would comprise the ballads they’d been holding back. Previous melancholic LPs Release and Elysium are generally regarded as Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe’s weakest. Probably unfairly – there’s a grandeur to both, but the Pets’ stock seemed set to fall when middling ballad Burning The Heather was released on the day Hotspot was announced. It’s also worrying Tennant and Lowe are doing a Greatest Hits tour in spring, without bothering to tour Hotspot first. Thankfully, Hotspot turns out to essentially comprise the pop songs they’ve worked on with Price, with much intrigue among the 6:4 bangers/ballads ratio. Dreamland, an up-for-it collaboration with Years & Years, is the first hint Tennant and Lowe are trying something new.
Monkey Business is incredible – not only PSB’s best tune since 1993’s Can You Forgive Her?, but their first all-out funk workout and the first time since 1996 B-side The Truck Driver And His Mate they’ve done all-out filth. It’s downright bizarre Monkey Business wasn’t the album’s first single. I Don’t Wanna and Happy People, from Pet Shop Boys’ catalogue of Odes To Clubbing, are almost as euphoric. In this context, the ballads work as moments of calm, with Hoping For A Miracle an elegant cousin of fan favourite Your Funny Uncle. It all ends with Wedding In Berlin, a slice of prime Chris Lowe giddiness, wherein Lowe eventually mucks about with The Wedding March. Hotspot is one of the downright oddest albums Pet Shop Boys have ever made, and all the better for it.
Wire – Mind Hive
How long can a band stay angry? In Wire’s case, it’s been a while – over four decades, in fact – though age has undoubtedly mellowed them a little, and they might argue anyway that their literate post-punk sound was always too disciplined to be simply irate. The years have inevitably altered their line-up a little, too, though less than many acts of such vintage: it’s indicative of their unfading confidence that Colin Newman, Graham Lewis and Robert Gotobed think nothing of the fact that the only change to their original incarnation, guitarist Matthew Simms, who first played with them in 2010, emphasises their veteran status by being half their age. He’s definitely not there because the band lack energy.
This passion, control, confidence and vitality are all central to Hung, the ominous centrepiece to Wire’s 17th studio album. The song’s growing tension remains largely unresolved, its staccato drums, nagging bassline and growling guitars refusing to reach the climax the eight minutes threaten throughout. It isn’t by any means the only malevolence on show here, either. Opener Be Like Them gets under way with what sounds like a bouzouki riff punctuated by precisely hammered drums and fierce guitar chords, while Newman’s monotone, spiteful vocals – he spits lines such as “Rabid dogs/ Tearing skeletons into piles of bones” with deliberate aggression – soon sound like he’s cornered his audience in a dingy pub, where he’s poking them in the chest.
Primed And Ready adopts a similarly straightforward musical approach, though its muddy guitar riffs are, perhaps, a little more unwieldy, and Oklahoma finds Lewis snarling in similarly claustrophobic fashion over a landscape of early Public Image Ltd guitars and bass, its brevity a nod back to Wire’s earliest days. Admittedly, his enigmatic revelation that “I admired your sexy hearse/ You knew I was dying” – in what otherwise appears to be a love song (of sorts) – suggests he may have indulged in more than drink, but it also adds to the sense of bewildering, muddled dread that shrouds the track.
Elsewhere, however, Mind Hive finds Wire in an unusually, albeit generally deceptively, poppy mood. Cactused is airy and melodious, its playful, tongue-twisting texts confirming Newman’s love of language is perpetually healthy, and the brief Off The Beach’s arrangement, with acoustic guitars and added saxophone, is surprisingly jangly for a song that concludes with details of modern life: “People sleeping, broken, beaten/ People lying, homeless, dying” – at its bleakest.
Meanwhile, though, Unrepentant, with its synths swirling in the background, probably represents the first time Wire can be described as dreamy; Shadows underlines how, even when they’re subdued, they can still make us feel uneasy. That’s true, too, of the closing, contemplative Humming, which appears to confirm that everyone needs to put their feet up from time to time, but is actually far from complacent. Instead, it’s an epitaph for democracy itself, its chorus a loaded criticism of our own inertia: “I can’t quite remember/ When it went wrong/ Someone was humming/ A popular song”. They may be older now, but Wire’s anger is still invigorating.
Andy Shauf – The Neon Skyline
Despite its title, Torontonian Andy Shauf’s world-weary last album, 2016’s The Party, felt much like Elliott Smith. His sixth is airier, but its nominal skyline is nonetheless a bar’s counter, and it’s around this his song’s characters circulate as if it were Cheers. Shauf’s a phenomenal narrative songwriter – both his voice and stories often recall Paul Simon’s – and here he tracks a night out, with snapshots of poignant, telling moments, as his ex returns to town.
He leads with acoustic guitar, the opening title track upbeat but full of self-deception and the closing Changer reminiscent of his admirers, Wilco. There are inspired flashes of woodwind, too, on the contemplative Where Are You Judy and quietly resigned Things I Do, while both Living Room, with its peppy shuffle, and bouncy Try Again echo Gizmo Varillas’ first album.
Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman
How do you make, for want of a better phrase, traditional music accessible? As the debut LP from Bonny Light Horseman proves, not getting too hung up on authenticity is key. Taking the deep-folk tradition of the British Isles as a starting point but merrily rewriting and reworking as they go, the trio – singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell (who recently won a Tony for the musical Hadestown), Fruit Bats mainman Eric D Johnson, and producer/multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman (Craig Finn, The National) – range across a musical landscape that’s instantly familiar. Still, though, songs suddenly spin off in unexpected directions. When this works best, it’s utterly magical, with a song such as The Roving conveying a deceptive looseness rooted as much in Americana as the British folk tradition and which, high praise indeed, also recalls The Band.
John Earls, Wyndham Wallace, Jonathan Wright, Steve Harnell